Here on the East Coast, during that brief period of paradise known as early summer (or late spring), strawberries rule…as they should. There is nothing quite like them in the plant kingdom. I can think of no other fruit that inspires thoughts of sensuality and romance like these lush berries. Slightly sweet, with just enough tart flavor to sparkle on our tongue, strawberries seduce us…and we willingly submit for every minute that they are in season.
Strawberries are the fruit of a perennial plant that grows in temperate climates all over the world, from Europe to North and South America. Wild strawberries are the ancestors of today’s cultivated berries and are small and juicy, with a tendency to be more flavorful and headily fragrant than the cultivated varieties. In 1714, Francois Amedee Frezier crossed two varieties of wild strawberries, creating a larger, fleshy berry. Widely cultivated and crossbred many times, Frezier’s plants are said to be the source of the large-fruit strawberry plants that are most popular today.
The strawberry plant is low-growing with many horizontal stolons (stalks) branching off in a variety of directions, spreading out from the base, taking root to form new plants. An interesting bit of information…the strawberry we eat is not actually the fruit of the plant, but is the result of a swelling at the end of the plant’s stalks, which occurs after pollination of the flowers. The actual fruit is the small yellowish seeds (achene) that dot the surface of the strawberry.
Best during late spring and early summer; choose strawberries that are firm and slightly shiny. Look for a healthy, uniform color, which indicates that they were picked ripe, although in many cases; strawberries are picked before they are ripe and allowed to ripen during shipping. Locally grown will always have the best flavor, as strawberries do not stand up well to heat, handling and shipping. The slightest bump will bruise them, causing them to rot very quickly. To avoid, soft, dull or moldy berries you must carefully examine the container you are considering for purchase.
Wash strawberries whole, before hulling to prevent them losing their juices, but whatever you do, don’t wash them until you’re ready to devour them. Don’t soak them either, as they can absorb water and lose flavor. Highly perishable, strawberries must be kept refrigerated and even then, will only last a few days. Strawberries may be frozen, but best to freeze them whole to preserve vitamin C. In our house, they don’t last long enough to even consider freezing them, so I am of the mind to enjoy them fully while we can. At their peak, they have the most luscious flavor.
Excellent sources of vitamin C, strawberries are also rich in potassium, folic acid, magnesium and vitamin B. They are reputed to work in the body as a gentle diuretic and as an astringent. Many beauty products include strawberry essence as it is said to help combat freckles and wrinkles. Strawberry leaves can be brewed into a tea to provide relief from water retention. A bit of bad news…when eaten in large quantities, strawberries can act as a mild laxative…so moderation, please, difficult as that can be with these yummy berries.
Please buy organic, as commercial berries consistently have the dubious honor of landing on the Environmental Working Groups list of most pesticide-contaminated foods, better known as The Dirty Dozen, showing an intense amount of pesticide residue on each berry.
Great in pies, tarts, as the crowning glory of strawberry shortcake, dipped in dark chocolate or simply eaten off the plant, their juices dribbling down your chin, strawberries are sure signs of the lazy days of summer.